Hand car washes should be required to have a licence to operate in an attempt to prevent “modern slavery in plain sight”, according to MPs.
The Environmental Audit Committee has been conducting an enquiry into fears that cheap hand car washes exploit workers and damage the environment.
MPs said more than a quarter of calls to the Modern Slavery Helpline were from car wash workers.
Cheap hand car washes now account for 80% of the sector in the UK.
They have grown rapidly over the past 15 years, and are often in supermarket car parks and on disused forecourts.
The MPs said government should have a trial licensing scheme and review whether the Modern Slavery Act could be updated to cover businesses as small as the hand car wash operators.
Committee chair Mary Creagh said: “Hand car washes are a common sight in our towns and cities. Yet they hide the widespread exploitation of workers through illegally low pay, poor working conditions and, in some cases, forced labour.”
In its report, the committee pointed to a number of health and safety violations, including a death in unsafe accommodation, cases of trench foot and chemical burns as a result of “prolonged exposure to water and 20 cleaning agents”.
The report cited one study which showed that out of 450 people who had been trafficked into the UK, 40 were working in hand car washes and had come from Eastern European countries.
The MPs were also “astonished and dismayed” to discover there had only been 14 minimum wage prosecutions in the sector since 1999.
“The government must target the sector and prosecute exploitative employers,” said Ms Creagh.
The MPs also highlighted risks to water quality as a result of waste water flowing into drains.
Ms Creagh said regulators seemed to “turn a blind eye” to breaches of planning and environmental regulations at hand car washes.
However, the report said not all hand car washes were in breach of the law.
The Car Wash Advisory Service (CWAS), which represents all kinds of car washes including hand car washes, operates a “Wash Mark” scheme to denote a company which is meeting required standards.
The CWAS said it welcomed the report, but added it wondered “why it has taken five months and taxpayers’ money to uncover information which we who work within the car wash industry have known for years”.